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07 Jul 2022

Attritional stalemate or tactical thriller - it's passion that endures

Talk of turnovers and percentages won't write the throwback piece in 25 years time.

Attritional stalemate or tactical thriller, it's passion that endures

Chrissy McKaigue celebrates as the crowd begins to spill onto the pitch. Pic by Sportsfile/Ramsey Cardy.

My first memory of Derry GAA is my great-aunt calling Joe Brolly a bad name.

I wasn't sure what the word was but I made sure not to try it out when I went to have my picture taken with the Sam Maguire Cup at Portglenone Monastery in the Autumn of 1993.

The feelings associated with the early 2000s were more painful as an Antrim native attending a Derry school.

Having lapped up the drawn game between Antrim and Derry's National League champions at Casement in 2000, the Oakleaf pushback was swift and emphatic.

Someone arrived in school with a roll of Derry stickers and plastered what seemed like every jumper, school bag and locker in the school.

Antrim were tanked in the replay.

I had a fairly traumatic introduction to Derry GAA, with Paddy Bradley in particular a nemesis of torment in those Antrim-Derry clashes of the mid 2000s.

It's fitting then, that Paddy Bradley is the first person I see in Clones on the day Derry bridge a 24-year gap and take home the Anglo-Celt Cup.

He's in good company. Flocks of red and white-clad Derry supporters occupy tables around the forecourt of the Creighton Hotel.

Outside on the pavement, street traders set up their hats, flags, scarves and headbands in time-honoured fashion.

Conversations jostle for airspace among the steady drone of air horns that echo up and down Fermanagh Street's narrow passage.

The scraping of metal on tarmac carries over the crowd as Gardaí trail fencing over to block off the bottom of the street.

Blue lights and sirens draw the attention of supporters as the bus carrying the Tyrone minor team is escorted up the hill towards St Tiernach's Park.

Passers-by return their attention to animated conversation, amateur punditry and explaining how much sauce they want on their burgers.

The owner of the Roost Bar spots the tripod and beckons me into the beer garden, where there are plenty of willing voices to pontificate.

Derry people are confident, Donegal too. Tyrone fans wear wry smiles, smiles that are fully justified over the next few hours.

Inside St Tiernach's Park, the minor final is played out to an ever-increasing crowd. Cheers become louder and more primal as the steady stream of spectators spill down onto the Hill.

The arrival of the schoolchildren for the guard of honour raises excitement levels, before they are joined by the defeated Derry minor side. The seniors are imminent.

With flags filling the air across the Pat McGrane, the players march behind the band, the parade raising both volume and tension, Amhrán na bhFiann whipping energy to fever pitch.

And then calm.

Two Ulster heavyweights size each other up. The clans of O'Cahan and O'Donnell shadow box inertly under the Clones sun.

The veteran slips and the contender lands an early blow. Niall Toner dances clear. Niall Loughlin dispatches the ball and punches the air. Delirium consumes the faithful.

But Donegal have been here before. Murphy baulks under the vocal pressure of the crowd, but Peadar Mogan snipes dangerously around the edges. By half time, only Loughlin's goal separates the sides.

A swing of Odhran McFadden Ferry's right leg from point blank range and parity is restored after the break. Ryan McHugh and Shane O'Donnell soon have the Tír Chonaill men in front.

Derry pull level and the final ten minutes mirror the first. Tense stalemate. Paralysis through fear of error. Extra time, signals Sean Hurson.

Every movement feels seismic. Aaron Doherty plucks a mark and points, but Emmett Bradley rifles over an immediate response. Quarter neither asked nor given.

An omnipresent Shane McGuigan edges Derry ahead before plucking the ball under his own crossbar within minutes. He succumbs to cramp, a creeping presence taking victims all over St Tiernach's Park.

With the cauldron on the boil, Brendan Rogers glides through to double the lead. Breathing space for fever dreams, but Ciaran Thompson's point tempers the excess.

Then comes Conor Glass. A final burst to get to Rogers' pass. Calves tightening, defenders closing in. 15,000 Oakleaf supporters pleading for deliverance. The umpires oblige and Clones explodes.

Momentarily.

Michael Murphy stands over the ball 20 yards from Lynch's goal, confronted by a snarling wall of red defiance.

A leg, an elbow, a knee. Whatever. The shot is repelled, and Emmett Bradley, a diving orb of determination, smothers the final swing of the damned.

The whistle breaks the levee, and an ecstatic sea of red and white crashes onto St Tiernach's Park. 24 years of waiting painted on the Clones turf.

The press box empties around me, any facade of neutrality collapsing as seasoned journalists indulge their inner dreamer.

After the winning speeches, the PA announcer is busy reuniting lost children with their parents, an impromptu creche forming at the foot of the stand.

An elderly man is standing on the aisle, his match programme tucked under his arm. He stares out at the tapestry of joy on the pitch.

There are many like him around the Gerry Arthur, eyes fixed on the sheer joy of the scene. Savouring the moment. Maybe remembering those who aren't there to experience it.

For those watching on TV, there was pearl clutching. The spectacle derided for a perceived lack of quality. Ulster football at its attritional worst.

Maybe it was. Or maybe it was two irresistible forces meeting two immovable objects. Elite sportsmen cancelling each other out in an innate tactical duel.

Either way, strip away the narrative so invested in by those to whom it mattered, and it could look mundane and pedestrian.

But without narrative, isn't everything?

In decades, when the current snapshot of Derry faithful get together, they won't remember the ins and outs of turnovers, kick out percentages or wides. They might not even remember the score.

They'll remember who they met after the final whistle. The joy of famine ended. The journey home. Maghera 'bleck' with people. The Anglo-Celt touring local schools.

It's hard not to be seduced by that narrative.

No matter how many times Paddy Bradley broke your teenage heart.

Up Derry.

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